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Bioethics Center
Presidential Commissions

Since 1974, four commissions have advised U.S. Presidents on bioethics. The early commissions were established to address abuses in research conducted by the federal government, such as the Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis in African-American men from 1932 to 1972. Recent commissions have compiled international documents on ethical research and published a “people’s reader” on bioethics called Being Human.

National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research (1974 to 1978)

This commission wrote The Belmont Report, which established the ethical basis for federal guidelines and regulations regarding research with human subjects. The commission also published reports on fetal research and research on vulnerable populations, among other topics.

President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research (1980 to 1983)

This commission was charged with reviewing federal policies governing human-subjects research. Their recommendations led to the “Common Rule,” adopted in 1991. This established a common federal policy for the protection of human subjects in research and governs all federally sponsored research involving human subjects supported by the federal government.

The National Bioethics Advisory Commission (1995 to 2001)

The 18-member commission appointed by the President made 30 recommendations for overhauling the federal oversight system to protect human-research participants. The recommendations were published in the report Ethical and Policy Issues in Research Involving Human Participants. A report by the RAND Corporation evaluating the Commission’s work is here.

President Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission compared 25 documents that had been published by international organizations and by individual countries, such as Finland, China, South Africa, Uganda, and Thailand. The findings appear in Ethical and Policy Issues in International Research: Clinical Trials in Developing Countries Volume II (see Section D-1).

The President’s Council on Bioethics (November 2001 to 2005)

The council was established to advise the President on bioethical issues that arise from advances in biotechnology. It has published two reports, Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry (July 2002) and Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness (October 2003). Their Web site includes transcripts from the council’s meetings on topics like stem cells, patenting human life, and sex selection.

In 2003, the council created Being Human, an anthology of literary works containing wisdom about bioethical dilemmas. The 95 eclectic selections were written by, among many others, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Willa Cather, and Albert Camus. The table of contents is available here.

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